Sana’a, Yemen – Earlier today I interviewed a Second Lieutenant from the Yemeni Army who survived the May 21 suicide attack in Sana’a. As my colleague Nasser Arrabyee has reported, the suspected al-Qaeda operation involved two operatives: the suicide bomber and a second individual carrying a Rocket-Propelled Grenade launcher (RPG). Their suicide bombers objective was apparently to distract and immobilize the crowd with his weapon, giving the second militant the opportunity to approach the reviewing stand and fire his RPG at Yemeni Defense Minister Muhammed Nasir Ahmad Ali.
This sort of “secondary strike” is a hallmark of al-Qaeda tactics. The first bombing creates chaos as bystanders flee and first responders rush to treat the wounded. The resulting commotion creates an opening for a subsequent attack, be it a second suicide bombing targeting the response personnel or, as in this case, a targeted attack on a high-value target. In either event, the net effect is more carnage, more drama, and more publicity for the militants and their message. In this instance, however, the second shooter was reportedly shot by Yemeni security personnel before he reached the reviewing stand.
The Lieutenant also offered additional insights into the assault–insights that may explain how a single bomber was able to kill so many victims. According to the young officer, the soldiers marching down Sana’a “70 Meter Road” were spaced one meter apart from side to side and front to back. Like a stand of birch trees, this formation left a lot of empty space between the soldiers–space that was swiftly filled with molten shrapnel. It also gave the bomber room to infiltrate the formation, passing deep into the ranks before detonating his weapon.
Other interviews offer additional insight into the bombing. According to one local analyst, public backlash against the bombing in Yemen has revealed a debate within AQAP regarding the efficacy of such operations. On the one hand, ideological purists like the late Abu Hureira Qasm al-Rimi, who was killed in a January 2010 airstrike, reject attacks on ordinary soldiers in favor of assassinating high-profile individuals like Defense Minister Ali. They view such strikes against such “tyrants” as a means of educating the masses and inciting them to revolt–an approach that echoes the tactics of European terrorist groups such as Narodnaya Volya in Russia, the Brigate Ross in Italy, and the Rote Armee Fraktion in Germany.
Other elements take a different approach. Unlike the ideological purists, AQAP leader Nasir al-Wuhayshi is far less concerned with capturing the public imagination that with seizing and controlling territory. Although killing ordinary soldiers may produce a public backlash, al-Wuhayshi reportedly sees strategic value in degrading and demoralizing the Yemeni Armed Forces. Viewed in this light, the purpose of the suicide bombing on the 70 Meter Road was not merely to gain publicity for al-Qaeda, but to demonstrate AQAP’s ability to respond following the Yemeni Army’s counteroffensive in the south.
Personality differences may also inform AQAP’s internal debate. In the past, purists like al-Rimi tend to view al-Qaeda’s global insurgency in ethical, universal terms. They were preoccupied with form–with high rhetoric and the salafi-jihadi equivalent of “moral clarity.” Al-Wuhayshi, by comparison, is a practical proletarian. His tactics are attritional, rather than dramatic. His rhetoric is for the masses, rather than for Ismalic scholars. And unlike other al-Qaeda leaders, who have demonstrated a remarkable willingness to cut and run, al-Wuhayshi is reportedly obsessed with seizing, holding, and defending territory.
These distinctions are significant for two reasons. First, they suggests that AQAP is not necessarily monolithic–at least not with respect to its operational priorities. Although the organization reportedly imposes a strict hierarchy on its members, the movement’s Saudi wing reportedly favors assassination and provocation operations, while others have embraced methods aimed at establishing a self-sustaining insurrection. Stated differently, the Saudis see Yemen as a launch pad for global operations, while the Yemenis may be more inclined to view capturing their homeland as an objective in its own right.
Second, these divisions suggests two possible courses for AQAP operations. To the extent that the movement’s ideological purists dominate, we are likely to see more “symbolic” violence aimed at Yemeni officials, foreign embassies, and other symbols of the nexus between Yemen’s regime and the West. If al-Wuhayshi’s pragmatism prevails, however, then violence in Yemen could increasingly resemble a Taliban-style insurgency. While neither approach is mutually exclusive, AQAP’s growing interest in seizing and governing territory appears to favor the latter.